The Great Ideas ~ The Uniqueness of Man

The Answer to Darwin

My, it’s been a long time since I posted on an essay/talk from this project.  Even though I was so excited to get to the next section on love, this series on Darwin finally stalled me.  It was interesting but after 4 essays delving into Darwin and evolution, I was approaching a stupor.  So with some time passed, I’m determined to get through this last essay!

First of all, I’ll share a little Adler humour from the beginning of the essay:

“Last time I began by reporting to you the experimental evidence in regard to animal intelligence, especially the perceptual insight of the chimpanzee …. a chimpanzee made a crude tool to fetch bananas by fitting together two bamboo sticks to make a longer one.  And as a matter of fact, I fumbled doing this last time and someone who saw the show told me during the week that I had fumbled and didn’t do it as well as the chimpanzee. Well, it’s hard to be an intelligent chimpanzee.  And though I practiced, I didn’t quite succeed.”


In The Answer to Darwin, Adler completed addressing Darwin’s evidence for evolution and then presented the opposing view, based on the premise that man alone is rational, in that:

  • only humans make artistically
  • only humans think discursively
  • only humans associate politically
Wind of History

Winds of History – Jacek Yerka ~ source Wikiart

In The Uniqueness of Man, Adler will now sum up the evidence and address the issue’s importance.

Only Humans Have A History

Mortimer connects this title with the third point: only humans associate politically, and says he has two more points.

  1. Only Human Life Has Historical Development – in that animals have a biological or physical inheritance but only man also has a cultural inheritance, and transmission of ideas and institutions from generation to generation.
  2. Only Humans Merely Subsist or Live Well – in that animals are more or less successful in their struggle for existence and satisfying their biological requirements whereas man can live two different types of lives based on either animality or rationality.  Even if prehistoric man did not live as civilized man does now, he had the potentiality to do it.  “The development or maturation of potentiality is not evolution.”
Clio Muse of History

Clio Muse of History – Johannes Moreelse
~ source Wikiart

Man Alone is Rational

Adler believes all the evidence that he has presented proves that man alone is rational. But Luckman interjects.  Man can plead his own case, but what would the animals say if asked?  He reads a John Stuart Mill quote and Bertrand Russell’s response:

“It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.  It is better to be Socartes dissatisfied than a fool satisfied.  And if the fool or the pig are of a different opinion, it is because they only know their own side of the question,” to which Russell replied, “No one has asked the pig how he feels about it.”

Adler asserts that Luckman’s point “cuts both ways,” giving an example of bowler birds who appear to build their nests very artistically, but says if asked, the bowler birds would likely support his argument and not those who may think they are attempting to be fine artists.  “The argument does not depend on our asking questions of men and animals.  It depends entirely on our observing behavior: our behaviour and their behavior.  It is what the behavior tells us men do and animals don’t do, not what men say they do and animals don’t talk about.”  Which bring us to a very useful point of logic (love this):

“Negative evidence is always inconclusive.  We can never be sure that the negative evidence is not the result simply of our failures in observation.”

While positive evidence is much more certain than negative evidence, “certitude is not to be expected in the course of scientific reasoning”; we must be satisfied with probability.

The Human Condition

The Human Condition (1933) Rene Magritte
~ source Wikiart

Adler is now going to attempt to sum up the weight of evidence regarding this important issue:

  1. With regard to man’s body, it seems that it only differs in degree from the bodies of other animals, which supports Darwin’s hypothesis of the evolutionary origin of the human body.
  2. But with regard to the mind, he believes the evidence is overwhelming that man’s mind or intellegence differs in KIND from animal intelligence. And although animals can have greater perceptual acuity and sometimes longer memory, they do not have the abstract or rational intelligence as does man.

Luckman wants to know, if man’s intelligence differs in kind from animals, what does that imply about its origins and, secondly, “how can human nature, which is only one thing, not two, have more than one kind of origin, differing origins?”

Adler answers that there is nothing like the human mind in degree, and therefore it could not have evolved from natural things by natural causes; it must originate from supernatural causes, divine creation.  He sees no issue with the hypothesis that God could have taken an animal body and introduced into it a rational soul.  In the last chapter of The Origin of Species, Darwin says, “I see no reason why the views given in this volume should shock the religious feelings of anyone.” and “There is a grandeur in the view of life with its several powers having been originally breathed by the Creator into a few forms or into one.  And that from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and wonderful have been and are being evolved.” leaving open the question “whether vegetable and animal organisms develop from one or from distinct primordial forms created by God.”

If God, according to Darwin, could make living organisms distinct from inorganic matter, God could also have created the human mind, “man’s rational soul, if you will, as distinct in kind from all forms of sensitive life as it exists in other animals.”

Now, the most important issue is this:  is your mind open or closed?  Adler knows from experience that most men and women consider this issue closed.

Castles of the Mind

Castles of the Mind (Public Domain) Thomas Chambers
~ source Wikimedia Commons

Closed Minds on Man’s Nature and Origin

Adler remembers giving a lecture on this subject at the University of Chicago to students and faculty in the biological sciences and was shocked to discover that the most advanced students and scientists had never heard anyone argue against Darwin’s theory of man’s origin and nature.  Many people watching this program (of Adler and Luckman) had also never questioned Darwin’s theories.  Adler states this one-sidedness is a sad state, a closemindedness that “is an unwarranted dogmatism that is, in my judgement, dangerous to the spirit of free inquiry and, according to the late Alfred North Whitehead, absolutely contrary to the true spirit of science itself.”

Whitehead became aware of his own dogmatism when Newton’s law of motion, supposed to be unchallengeable, began to be proved wrong.  Whitehead said, “Nothing is more curious than the self-satisfied dogmatism with which mankind at each period of its history cherishes the delusion of the finality of its existing beliefs.  Skeptics and believers are all alike ….. At this moment scientists and skeptics are the leading dogmatists.  Such dogmatism is the death of philosophic adventure.  The argument on any basic issue is never closed”  Like Newton, Darwin too can be wrong.

Dignity and Impudence

Dignity and Impudence (1839) Edwin Henry Landseer
~ source Wikiart

Now Adler does not expect to persuade you, but he does want to emphasis that the issue itself is far from closed; as there is evidence on both sides it’s important to weight both sides with an open mind.  But he is still puzzled as to why there are so many closed minds on the subject and surmises it is perhaps because science is taught so dogmatically in schools, but he believes also that evolution has “emancipated man from religion, from the belief that God created man in His own image with a special dignity and a special destiny, including divine rewards and punishments.”

Luckman points out that this is a theoretical matter and isn’t there practical aspects to be addressed?; after all, the issue concerns human actions and emotions more than thoughts.

Adler responds:

“….. the belief or disbelief that God created man with a special dignity and a special destiny that accords therewith has profound practical consequences for the conduct of life, consequences which many persons wish to avoid.  But it also has profound consequences of another sort that many persons wish to embrace.”


Destiny Makers

Destiny Makers – Carlos Orozco Romero
~ source Wikiart

Which brings him to his point of the issue in practical terms:

Darwinism Is Incompatible With Human Dignity

Adler asks us to consider a practical issue first, the distinction between a person and a thing.  There is never a doubt about either, as you would never call a shoe a person or even a beloved pet one.  This is a difference of kind.  One cannot be a little more or less of a person and likewise a thing is not more or less a thing; there is a sharp division.

There is a special dignity, special status, a social or political status conferred upon persons which man would not have if he were a thing.  All the rights and liberties also belong to human beings as persons as well as moral responsibility and “personality is the essence of human equality and of man’s superiority to other animals.”

Adler takes it a step further.  The Declaration of Independence says all men are equal as in having the same quality or character of being persons and therefore have the priviledges and liberties conferred upon persons, indicating a superiority of men over animals or things.

“Justice requires us to treat equals equally and unequals unequally.”  When unequals are treated differently because one is superior to the other in kind, justice necessitates that we treat that inequality (of kind) differently than one of degree. If this were not true, we would have to amend our current treatment of human and animals.  Being human, being superior in kind, justifies that we treat each other as ends, whereas brute animals can be treated as means.


Justicia (1858) Victor Hugo
~ source Wikiart

NOW …. suppose that humans are superior to other animals only by degree …. therefore if higher animals can treat lower animals as means (as discussed above), then “the same principle of justice (would apply) if there are superior races of humans, they would be justified by that difference in degree in treating inferior races as things, exploiting from man only in degree and man from animal only in degree, then by the principles of justice we have no defense against Hitler’s doctrine of superior and inferior races and the justiification he would give for the superior to enslave, exploit, and kill the inferior.”

Finally Adler’s last proposition rests on three great religions of the West: Judaism, Christianity and Mohammedanism.  The validity of these religions rests on the truth of the proposition that man is created in the image of God with a special dignity and destiny; if this proposition is not true, we should repute these religions as myths and essentially false.

Adler says he is not trying to convince you one way or the other.  But you must decide between these two views because both cannot be true.  “You cannot keep your religious, your political, your moral beliefs and also with another part of your mind hold Darwin’s view of man’s origin and nature to be true.”  

To conclude, Adler stresses:

  1. “I think one’s actions should be consistent with one’s beliefs”
  2. “We are all guilty of hypocrisy if we believe that Darwin is right and that at the same time go on acting as if he were wrong, enjoying the privileges of human dignity, even demanding those privileges but at the same time denying the very facts on which that dignity and its privileges are based.”
Clear Ideas

Clear Ideas (1958) Rene Magritte
~ source Wikiart

Wow, this review is long but I wanted to cover all of Adler’s thoughts in order to follow them.  He makes some very compelling points and forms intriguing conclusions. I’d like to re-read these five talks all together and have some time to mull over his logic.

The talks is this series can be found here:

  1. How To Think About Man
  2. How Different Are Humans?
  3. The Darwinian Theory of Human Origin
  4. The Answer to Darwin
  5. The Uniqueness of Man (found here)

Now on to the next series of five which are about love, the first one being: How To Think About Emotion.


⇐  The Answer to Darwin                                          How to Think About Emotion ⇒






24 thoughts on “The Great Ideas ~ The Uniqueness of Man

  1. So….. essentially Adler seems to be saying that Humans appear to be the only creatures with a recognisable culture… How is this an ‘answer’ to Darwin? I’m confused..

    • You’re a deep thinker so it would really help to read the other four talks, as Adler builds his case with each one. One of the main issues he focusses on is the differences in KIND vs. DEGREE. Darwin said man differs in degree from other animals, but Adler makes a case that we differ in KIND and, if that is the case, there is an inequality between man and animals. Man is the superior being however man compared to other men are the same kind and therefore are equal and, taking it a step further, all men have conferred upon them a special dignity, liberties, etc. If one decides to stay in the Darwin camp, men are not equal because they differ only in degree (from other men as well as animals) and therefore, as he says, Hitler’s philosophy is appropriate, or can at least fit into the definition. Which is why he says Darwinism is incompatible with human dignity.

      Does that make sense? There is so much dense material and you’re certainly welcome to read the other four talks/posts if you’d like to have a clearer picture.

      Thank you for making me explain it. It’s actually helped me. Sometimes it’s difficult for me to get my head wrapped around these difficult thoughts and having to explain it, makes it a wee bit clearer!

      • I think I understand now (sleeping on it helps!). Adler is proposing a philosophical response to the perceived implications of the fact of Darwinian evolution. He does so by saying that Humans are unique – different in kind – in their higher level functions and abilities. That’s true as far as it goes but it doesn’t invalidate or even call into question the fact of Darwinism. People and cultures will, inevitably, respond to Evolution in their own ways… and have/continue to do so.

        Our ‘uniqueness’ rests on the fact that we’re self-aware and (as far as we know) are the only self-aware creatures on the planet. There *are* other candidates – whales/dolphins and the other Great Apes but we can’t confirm deny this until we’ve figured out how the communicate with them properly. Not being able to communicate with dolphins presently does not prove that there’s nothing there to communicate with. We just don’t know. They could just be as smart as dogs, but they could be as smart as we are – or smarter! Added to this is the real possibility that we could create self-aware machines in the next 50 years which would knock us off that unique pedestal.

        I’m not convinced that Evolution/Darwinism and religion are completely incompatible. Darwinism & Creationism are certainly at odds but a belief in God and Evolution shouldn’t be – but you’d have to ask someone who believes in both to explain that to you.

        I don’t believe that Darwinism is at odds with ‘human dignity’. Why would it be. Just because we’re animals doesn’t automatically mean we must treat other people *like* animals. Maybe it means we should be treating other animals better than we do? They are, after all, our relatives [grin].

        • Yes, it sounds like you’ve understood it. I don’t think he was completely discounting Darwin, in that he accepted his theories with regard to the physiological (the body) but he did not agree with regard to the soul (or intellect). And Adler goes further than just being self-aware, such as associating politically, having a history, etc., and, as Ruth mentioned, moral standards.

          When Adler mentioned treating unequal things unequally, I didn’t sense it meant treat them poorly (even though it could meant that, I suspect), only differently, but yes, with less of a regard. And obviously humans don’t always treat each other equally, but we should.

          As far as religion and evolution go, I tend to agree with you but with so little knowledge I perhaps shouldn’t give my opinion at all. Honestly, I’ve struggled believing evolution because it implies (to me) that living beings should always be evolving which means always improving. But for me the evidence doesn’t bear it out. However that’s my completely uninformed opinion from someone who hasn’t even read any of Darwin’s works (I tried Origin of Species once but only made it ¼ of the way through). At least by reading Adler’s talk, I’ll have some thoughts to make into it when I do read it (although I’ve since heard that it’s better to read The Descent of Man first).

          In any case, thanks for your comments.🙏 They’ve certainly got me thinking!

          • evolution is simple: the adaptation of species to a changing environment, is all it is…

          • Mudpuddle is essentially right – Evolution isn’t about ‘improving’ but being better adapted to the environment, in other words surviving and breeding. Evolution doesn’t have an end point or purpose. That’s it really. If you want to understand Evolution I wouldn’t start with Darwin. He’s 150 years out of date by now! I’d read something more modern, say published in the last 5-10 years. There’s plenty of introductory books out there.

          • That’s a good point. If I could only read one book on evolution, which one would you recommend?

  2. Great job, Cleo! I read this sooooo long ago, and my memory of it is cloudy. I somewhat remember the section on Darwin. Of course, I agree w/ Adler’s many points of arguments. It’s actually frightening to think of a world totally and completely resting on Darwin’s theory of evolution w/o any pushback.

    I didn’t see Adler mention morality, or did I miss it in your review? Anyway, a good question is “Where do we get our morality?” We are rational beings, yes, and moral, too. Our morality comes from our Creator. So when a society is based on evolutionary ideas, then morality is objective; human lives are endangered bc human life has no value. I was thinking this toward the end when Adler states we cannot embrace both evolution and enjoy religion….like our lives have worth and deserve to be protected and defended.

    Anyway, I really enjoyed your review. And the images to go along with it.

    ~ Ruth

    • Ruth! I’m so glad to hear from you! I missed you and your blog but I see you have a new one that I’ll have to explore!

      What a great observation! Adler does mention morality but only briefly as he is tying everything up, in a series of other things that are intrinsic to man. I can’t figure out if morals were something that he intentionally overlooked, as he thought the kind/degree argument much more effective and concentrated on human dignity and destiny, or that he thought it was so obvious that it didn’t need to be mentioned.

      Thanks for actually reading it all. There was alot of information to process and it was hard to condense and still understand it. Hopefully the next talk with be a little easier on me, lol!

      Take care!

      • It was my pleasure! This is a topic close to my heart, and your review captivated my attention. I wish I took notes when I read my copy, but I did not, and I no longer own it; I figured I’d never read it again. ; / But nice review, and I look forward to the next section.

        • I’m glad I could inspire you. It makes up for my brain hurting after reading (and reviewing) it, lol!

          (Also, I’m having problems commenting on your blog. I tried posting one for The Odyssey but I think it’s disappeared unless it has to be approved first? Just wanted to let you know!)

    • ha… now that i know that it works: scientists work with evidence, mostly… that eschews opinions, essays, history, philosophy, religion, and anything else that they can’t put a hand on (geologists in particular, haha). so usually they don’t talk about things they can’t prove or demonstrate. math might seem to be an exception to that practice, but it’s based on discoveries made in the actual world: Newton and the apple, for instance… quantum mechanics, for instance, was first promulgated by Mr. Einstein who saw that the math led him to new understanding of the universe; subsequent findings in the real, touchable world, have substantiated his findings for the most part, although he was mistaken in some respects, as experimentation has revealed. See the Michaelson/Morley experiments in the late 19th century, which measured the speed of light and showed that the perception of it varied in the presence of speed and/or mass. astronomy is right on the verge of perfecting a general field theory, as it used to be termed, which will provide a repeatable, verifiable explanation of how the universe works. an exciting time to be alive… i wish i had more time ahead of me to see it all evolve…

      • I used to bug my brother-in-law, who is a cancer specialist, saying, “You don’t actually know 100%. You’re really just guessing.” And he’d laugh and say, “Yes, but they’re educated guesses.” 😄

        I think I see science as theory, because that’s how it often starts out. And, of course, we have life and evidence to see that scientists can be very sure of things and later realize they were mistaken. But that certainly doesn’t mean things aren’t proved or provable, you’re right. I think it’s sad that different disciplines are viewed independently. I believe a liberal arts education used to see them an interconnected in different ways. It’s my feeling only, but I think life would make more sense that way. However, all that said, I would imagine geology is much more concrete (ha, ha! Did I make a joke? 🤣)

        • haha, yes! (geologists love geology jokes, lol). the principle object of science is to prove themselves wrong. they get really excited about that!

          • Hmmm …. I feel that’s the way it used to be but science depends so much on money now in some areas, I feel that in some cases it becomes the most important thing. Sadly ….

  3. What a fascinating post! I’ve never read any Adler, but know of him of course–he’s fairly famous in Chicago intellectual history through his connection to the University of Chicago and Encyclopedia Britannica. My wife–who used to work for Encyclopedia Britannica–has strong opinions on Adler–he ruined the Encyclopedia, for instance… 😉 (Which is not, I think, an uncommon point of view.)

    I went back and read (maybe reread some of them) all of your posts on the book. I hadn’t realized it was based on a television series. How wonderful that something so fascinating could be once discussed on television. Not so much any longer.

    I do think he doesn’t see a couple of things. You note that Darwin thinks religious belief is perfectly possible–Darwin remained a Christian himself–with the sense that evolution isn’t a scientific truth. They also don’t strike me as incompatible, and for a more modern attempt to accommodate the two I find Teilhard de Chardin quite convincing. (But I was educated by the Jesuits!) Specifically I think that discontinuities (difference in degree vs difference in kind) are perfectly possible within an evolutionary framework–just as step functions are possible in mathematics–after all snails and humans don’t have much in common, but both are evolutionary possible. I don’t think you can disprove what Adler says, but I do think what he states is a matter of faith, not rational argument. And indeed I think the reductio ad Hitlerum against evolution that he uses is entirely wrong. I may think of myself as superior in intelligence, etc., to otters, for example, but that doesn’t mean I can treat them entirely dismissively. Likewise with persons. Instead, as Karl Popper in Open Society says, “if [racial superiority] were an established fact, it would not create special political rights, though it might create special moral responsibilities…’ Adler assumes it grants superior moral rights, but no. Certainly vegans who chose that for ethical reasons don’t think so.

    We have an outdoor drain that’s covered by a small metal grate. It’s a good source of water for wild animals–mostly raccoons where we are, though there are also skunks and even occasionally opossums. Over the years, the animals have managed to pull up the grate in order to drink the water. Does each generation of raccoons discover that the grate can be pulled up to get water–or does one generation teach the next that the grate can be pulled up? I don’t really know, but I suspect the latter.

    Also I think his science is now out-of-date. Various things I’ve read recently suggested that Neanderthals had artistic sensibilities, organized societal structures, and a belief in the afterlife. Teilhard de Chardin is perfectly happy to accommodate this. Even our cats I think have some sense of history, I think: they know when we’ve been gone for a day or a week or a month–and are much unhappier if we’ve been gone for the longer period of time.

    Anyway, what a long comment! But that’s a tribute to a fascinating post & a fascinating subject…

    • Well, goodness, Reese, thank you so much for your long comment and trying to educate me. I really know so little about evolution that I can offer no real opinions except how I feel about it. Evolution doesn’t interest me enough to really dive deeply into it so I appreciate your comment (and, of course, Mudpuddle’s and Cyberkitten’s) offering further information. I will look up Teilhard de Chardin though because I would like at some point to read Darwin’s books even though, as Cyberkitten pointed out, it might be more useful to read something more current.

      Adler talks about treating unequals unequally, not indicating treating them badly only differently and then used the Hitler example so I do think some logic or explanation is missing there.

      I think the reason why Adler’s argument appeals to me is the focus on humanity and equality. Honestly, not only do I not see many people treating others as equals, sometimes they don’t even seem to realize they are dealing with another human being. There is a self-centeredness to our culture and a lack of care for others which is disturbing. Yes, not everyone, but I’m continually surprised how people will stand up for a cause and then viciously attack anyone who doesn’t agree with them. It’s alarming. So when Adler puts a focus on humans and equality, I like it!

      Do your cats know you’ve gone and remember it and resent you? Or do they live in the moment and only know when you arrive home that they are irritated? 😉

      In any case, thanks again for helping me think!

      • The clinginess of the cats when we return home is proportionate to how we’ve been gone. We go to the grocery store & come back–yeah, whatever; we go to Europe and come home–oh, we love you so much! Where have you been? 😉

        Adler is definitely good for making one think–and that’s a good thing! That’s exactly the sort of reason to read such a book–if you agree entirely it would be sort of pointless.

        I, too, worry that society is becoming less civil and less concerned with the human.

  4. It’s been a while since I read anything about Evolution but here’s a few good/easy reads for you to think about…

    The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being – Evolution and the Making of Us by Alice Roberts

    Your Inner Fish – The amazing discovery of our 375-million-year-old ancestor by Neil Shubin

    Why Evolution is True by Jerry A Coyne

    As a start I’d certainly recommend the Roberts book. She’s VERY good at explaining things in a digestible manner.

    • You’re welcome! I love Adler’s directness and his open-mindedness. It’s good to get back to reading him.

      Have a wonderful Christmas, Jim!

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